Photography Blog

When to Use (And When NOT to Use) Digital Image Stabilization

Canon 70-200 F4L IS image stabilized lens.

Here are a few tips to help you understand how digital image stabilization works, when it’s most beneficial and when you really don’t need it at all.

Image stabilization is sometimes called IS, VR, OS, VC — the list goes on and on because camera or lens company has a different name and acronym for it. No matter what it’s called on your camera or lens, any digital image stabilization system is meant to compensate for physical movement of the camera. While the digital adjustment has its perks, there are times when it’s not necessary. Gaining an understanding of how it works can help you make the best decision for your photography.

How digital image stabilization works

Most image stabilization is done in the lens, though there are a few cameras (mainly the mirrorless or micro 4/3 cameras) that actually have images stabilization in the camera body itself.

Image stabilization work basically the same way in the lens and the camera. The device by uses sensors to detect camera movement. Then it moves either optical elements within the lens or the imaging sensor itself to compensate for the movement.

When to use image stabilization

Image stabilization can come in handy when using longer focal length and heavier lenses. The main advantage is being able to get sharp handheld shots at shutter speeds well below what would normally be required.

As a general rule, to maintain sharpness while hand-holding your camera, you want to use the reciprocal of the focal length — the 1/Focal Length rule. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens you want a shutter speed of at least 1/200th; 50mm = 1/50th, and so on.

With image stabilization and a 200mm lens, you can take an equally sharp shot at 1/60th of a second. That’s two stops slower than normal — a huge advantage in low light situations.

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Image stabilization examples

Below are a few sample images, heavily cropped from the originals taken at 200mm to help illustrate the advantage of IS. The focus for each image was on the cross bar in the capital H.

With image stabilization turned on

These first three photos, shot with a handheld Canon 70-200 F4L IS with the image stabilization, use three different shutter speeds.

Image stabilization example image

At 1/200th second with IS on (shown above), you get a very sharp image (of a very boring subject).

IS example images

The photo above used a shutter speed of 1/60th, and as you can see, it is still quite sharp.

IS example images.

Finally, this one is at a shutter speed of 1/40th. You can see some softness creeping in due to camera shake, but it’s still not too bad.

Especially by the 1/40th second image, it’s easy to see that image stabilization works and works well. From 1/200 down to 1/40 is almost three stops difference. This could easily mean the difference between getting the shot or not in a low-light situation.

With image stabilization turned off

It’s worth comparing the same photo with IS on vs. off. Here are the same shots and shutter speeds without any image stabilization.

IS off sample image

With IS off and the shutter speed at 1/200th seconds, the image is sharp (as expected) because it followed the 1/Focal Length rule.

Hand-held, IS off, 1/60 sample image.

At 1/60th seconds, though the photo shows obvious signs of camera motion–induced blur, it’s still surprisingly sharp. Maybe I hadn’t had my coffee yet…my hands aren’t normally that steady when using longer lenses at such slow shutter speeds!

And finally…

IS off sample image taken at 1/40th of a second.

Shot at 1/40th seconds with the IS off, this is pretty much unusable.

When you don’t need image stabilization

Boardwalk through the sand dunes at sunrise.

As you’ve seen, for longer focal lengths and when photographing in low light with slower shutter speeds, image stabilization is an outstanding feature. But not all photography situations call for this feature. There a few times it’s just not necessary.

Wide-angle shots

For short focal length wide-angle shots that use a tripod, like the photo above, my personal opinion is that it’s not all that necessary. When using wide-angle lenses (such as a 17-40 wide-angle zoom) and following the 1/Focal length rule for shutter speed, you should be able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to counteract a little camera motion, negating the need for image stabilization. 

Using a tripod

A tripod’s main purpose is holding your camera perfectly still while taking a photo. In fact, on many lenses, it’s recommended that IS be turned off when using a tripod: The lack of motion confuses the IS system and can cause it to try correcting for movement that isn’t there, which results in images that aren’t sharp. Many newer lenses (at least those in the Canon line-up) have newer, more sophisticated IS that can sense when a camera is on a tripod. I still recommend turning it off when using a tripod unless you’re using a very long super telephoto lens.

Freezing subject motion

If you’re photographing a moving subject, you’ll need a shutter speed fast enough to freeze its motion. The image below was captured using a 300mm image0stabilized lens with a shutter speed of 1/800th of a second. The excellent IS system in the lens did absolutely nothing to prevent the motion blur of the bird taking flight. In this case, only a higher shutter speed than the already high 1/800 would have frozen the bird mid-flight. 

Motion blur caused by subject movement

Cost

One final reason you may not need or want image stabilization is the cost. For example, Canon’s 70-200 F4 lens come in two versions: one with image stabilization and one without. The one without the system is half the cost of the one that includes the feature. Yes, there are other differences that contribute to the cost difference, but the IS system is certainly a large part of the extra cost. If you know you’re always going to be photographing in good light on a tripod, you can save money by buying lenses without image stabilization.

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11 Comments

Craig A. Lance

There’s a couple things I’d like to mention. When calculating shutter speed via the 1/Focal Length rule you’ll want to take the crop factor into the equation; so, if your lens is 250mm with a crop factor of 1.6, you will actually be using a 400mm lens. Instead of 1/250 shutter speed, you’ll want to use 1/400.

The other thing that I’ve learned is using IS to focus while using a tripod. I was shooting the Moon and trying very hard to keep it in perfect focus. My camera was on a tripod. What I would have to do is turn on IS and hold the shutter down halfway to engage the IS, then manually focus. Then turn off IS to take the shot. A real pain in the butt, but necessary in order to get a crisp focus.

Here’s the problem. I know that using IS on a tripod is not going to work for the reasons you stated above. And when shooting the Moon at 400mm AF is not useful; so, I must manually focus. When you put your hands on the lens to manually focus, the camera shakes too much to get a decent focus. So, by turning on the IS (and you need to press the shutter down halfway to engage the IS) you can stabilize the camera enough to get the perfect focus. Once you achieve perfect focus, you must then turn off IS and trigger the shutter (I like using a timer).

Reply
Jeff Sinon

Craig, this is an excellent tip! One I was totally unaware of. I’ve always been frustrated when trying to manually focus using live view with longer focal length lenses. It never occurred to me to turn IS ON while focusing and then to turn it off to take the shot. Thanks, you learn something new every day!

Reply
Thom

Mystery solved! I hadn’t been able to figure out how to get a good sharp moon shot…until now. Great tip! Thanks!

Reply
Jeff Sinon

Glad I could help! Even if I did manage to somewhat botch the terminology a bit 😉

Reply
CJ

Image stabilization or VR as Nikon calls it is an absolute must for me. I have been in photography since the 60’s. Unfortunately I suffer from familiar tremors or essential tremors which progresses as you age. It is an inherited disease the came to me in my paternal side. At my age now I can not shoot at all with out VR lenses. It is absolutely frustrating.

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Jeff Sinon

I’m sorry to hear that. Fortunately there is IS, or VR as the case may be, that allows you to continue to keep at your photography. And I hope for your sake you’re able to keep shooting for a long time to come.

Reply
Marinus

It’s OPTICAL stabilization, not DIGITAL stabilization you are talking about.

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Jeff Sinon

Technically, you are absolutely correct.

Reply
Ivon

Digital stabilization is done in camera(compact systems) where they raise the ISO to achieve faster shutter speeds.
Optical stabilization in the lens and the other form of stabilization is in the sensor(it moves to counteract your movement).

You’ve got some good points in your article but should really get your terminology correct.

Reply
Todd

The main reason for turning the function off when on a tripod, to save the motor. If you have the function on and it is on a tripod it will wear the motor out faster.

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Jeff Sinon

I’m not sure how much extra wear and tear there would be while using any type of stabilization while on a tripod. At least I’ve never heard any claims that it wears out the IS unit any faster. From experience I can tell you that in almost all cases, using image while your camera is on a tripod will result in soft photos. The IS system gets confused looking for motion that isn’t there, which in turn results in slightly soft or blurry photos due to the elements moving within the lens when they shouldn’t be.

Reply

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